Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, Joe Rosenthal of the Associated Press took the iconic photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima”, which depicts six U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in the final stages of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.

The U.S. had invaded Iwo Jima four days prior as part of its island-hopping strategy to defeat Japan. The island was located halfway between Japan and the Mariana Islands, where American long-range bombers were based, and was used by the Japanese as an early warning station. Capturing the island would weaken this warning system and also provide an emergency landing for damaged bombers.

As the highest point on the island, Mount Suribachi allowed the Japanese to spot and target American forces, and was thus the tactical priority. There was never any question the U.S. would win—the Americans had overwhelming numerical and logistical superiority, plus complete air supremacy—while the Japanese were low on food and supplies nor could retreat or reinforced. Yet the battle was nonetheless brutal, grinding on for over another month after the photograph was taken.

In fact, half the marines later identified in the photo were killed shortly after: Sergeant Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley.

Uniquely among Pacific War Marine battles, total American casualties (both dead and wounded) exceeded those of the Japanese, though Japanese combat deaths were three times higher than American fatalities. (Of the 21,000 Japanese on the island, only 216 were ultimately taken prisoner, with many fighting to the death, often through various cave systems.)

This was actually the second time the U.S. flag was raised on the mountain; the first instance had occured earlier in the morning, but in the early afternoon, Sergeant Strank was ordered to take Marines from his rifle squad to bring supplies and raise a larger flag on the summit.

“Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” was the only photograph to win the Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its publication. It is perhaps just as well known for its the construction of the Marine Corps War Memorial in 1954, which honors all Marines who died since the founding of the Continental Marines of the Revolutionary War in 1775.

For me, one of the more compelling stories from the episode was that of Ira Hayes, a Pima Native American from Arizona who, like so many indigenous Americans, volunteered readily to fight for the county. He disliked the fame he received, feeling survivor’s guilt for the marines who didn’t make it back, descended into alcoholism, most likely due to what we now know as PTSD.

Johnny Cash, known for his advocacy for Native Americans, dedicated a song to him that remains one of my favorite.

The First Report on the Holocaust

On this day in 1942, the Polish government-in-exile published the first document informing the world about the Holocaust. 

Titled “The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland,” it was sent to 26 Allied governments (officially known as the United Nations) with the purpose of drawing attention to the Final Solution and thereby discourage Germans from carrying it out.

The most important component in the brochure was a note by Polish Foreign Minister Edward Raczynski authenticating its contents, making it the first official report on the Holocaust and the first time that a country called on other countries to defend *all* Jews persecuted by the Nazis, not just those who were citizens of their country. 

Drawing on extensive reporting by agents of Poland’s underground government, Raczynski discussed the change in execution methods from shootings to gassing, and the increased deportation of Jews from ghettos to locations described as “extermination camps.” He also estimated that up to one third of Poland’s three million Jews had already been killed—which turned out to be an underestimate. 

Much of the information came from a 100-page report by Witold Pilecki, a Polish agent who allowed himself to be captured and sent to a concentration camp so as to ascertain the nature of the Nazi’s campaign. It was the first comprehensive record on a Holocaust death camp, with details about the gas chambers and sterilization experiments. It also states that there were three crematoria in Birkenau able to burn 8000 people daily.

Unfortunately, Poland’s courageous efforts came mostly to nothing. Despite its extensive and detailed information, the document had little effect, largely because people outside German-occupied Europe could not believe Jews were being exterminated on that scale. The concept of genocide, let alone the term, did not exist yet, so no one could comprehend a methodical, systematic, and deliberate elimination of an entire people (though similar campaigns had been undertaken before, and have since been labeled genocides). 

Ultimately, over six million Jews would be killed, along with another five to six million other “undesirables”. Poland would suffer the worst WWII losses proportionally, with nearly one out of four Polish people killed, including nearly all Jews (once the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in the world).

Forgotten Hero: Henning von Tresckow

The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus [a source of misfortune from which there is no escape]. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.

Last words of Henning von Tresckow, a Generalmajor in the German Wehrmacht who organized German resistance against Adolf Hitler, most famously the Valkyrie plan to overthrow the Nazis (known as the July 20 Plot).

Born into a Prussian noble family with 300 years of military tradition, he was the youngest lieutenant in the German Army during the First World War, earning the nation’s highest military honor — the Iron Cross — for outstanding courage and independent action against the enemy.

The young Tresckow (Wikimedia Commons).

A worldly man well versed in poetry, foreign languages, economics, and law, Tresckow nonetheless remained a career soldier, rising to the General Staff after graduating best in his class in 1936. He opposed many of Hitler’s military and foreign policies, such as the Anschluss with Austria and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, even predicting that Germany would fall from an overly aggressive foreign policy.

Although once an enthusiastic supporter of Nazism due to its opposition to the harsh Treaty of Versailles, he became quickly disillusioned following the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, when the nascent SS murdered numerous political opponents and rivals. He regarded the infamous Kristallnacht, the state-sanctioned pogrom against Jews, as personal humiliation and degradation of civilization. He immediately sought out civilians and officers who opposed Hitler, proclaiming to a loved one that “both duty and honor demand from us that we should do our best to bring about the downfall of Hitler and National Socialism to save Germany and Europe from barbarism”.

During the campaign against the Soviet Union, he became further appalled by Nazi brutality, including the treatment of Russian prisoners of war and the mass shootings of Jewish women and children. When he learned about the massacre of thousands of Jews at Borisov, Tresckow appealed passionately to a fellow officer: “Never may such a thing happen again! And so we must act now.”

Thus, as the chief operations officer of Army Group Center, he took great risk to seek out other officers who shared his views and place them in key positions to build up a strong base for internal resistance. He tried to persuade other high-ranking officers to join his conspiracy, to little avail (notably, all those he did manage to recruit cited the massacre of Jews and others as the catalyst for their opposition to Hitler and the Nazis).

Ultimately, he teamed up with several dozen fellow resisters — chief among them Ludwig Beck, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, Colonel Hans Oster, General Friedrich Olbricht, and Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg — and devised the Valkyrie plan to kill Hitler, seize control of the government from the Nazis, and make peace with the Allies. A few days before the coup attempt, Tresckow confided to a friend that “in all likelihood everything will go wrong”, and when asked whether the action was necessary nonetheless, he replied, “Yes, even so”.

Unfortunately, as we all know, it did go wrong, with many of the plotters later being caught and executed. When Tresckow, who was stationed on the Eastern Front, learned of this failure, he opted to commit suicide after issuing the last words quoted above to his liaison. In order to protect his co-conspirators from suspicion, he staged his death to look like an enemy attack, firing several bullets from his pistol before detonating a grenade beneath his chin. His words from months before ring true to this day, if unfortunately forgotten:

The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.

It is a shame that his story, like that of so many other resisters to the Nazis, remains widely unknown outside Germany (recent attempts by Hollywood notwithstanding).

Tresckow c. 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / German Federal Archives).




Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes

Aristides de Sousa Mendes was a Portuguese diplomat who, during WWII, defied his own government and issued Portuguese visas free of charge to over 30,000 refugees seeking to escape the Nazis (Portugal was officially neutral at the time). For this he was fired, denied a pension, and denounced by his government, friends, and colleagues. He died in disgrace and poverty in 1954, but never regretted his decision.

The Anniversary of World War I

It’s a strange thing to think about. While in this point in time, today is just any other “normal” day in the year, nearly a century ago it marked the beginning of what was then one of the bloodiest, most intense, and most horrific conflict in the entire span of human history.

World War I, known originally as the Great War or the World War, witnessed the involvement of tens of millions of men, and millions more civilians; it was one of the first to incorporate, on a large scale, the staples of modern military technology – artillery, machine guns, tanks, planes, and others; and invoked much of the complex intrigue, realpolitik, and diplomacy that have come to define warfare in the 21st century (indeed, these factors contributed to the start of the war, and in some cases even exacerbated it). Though long since overshadowed by the more prominent and relatively recent Second World War, it was this conflict that would first introduce the 20th century to it’s  terrifying – some would say defining – new potential for stupidity, barbarity, and violence; the unresolved issues and consequences of the Great War would in fact precipitate that second horrific conflict just two decades later.

It was because it began on the cusp between modern and pre-modern warfare that the death toll – anywhere from 15 to 65 million – was so gruesomely high; advanced technology allowed men to kill each other with greater ease and speed than ever before, yet tactics and tradition didn’t adapt to this new reality, sending millions to their deaths as they charged machine gun or were in tight, vulnerable formations. It was not uncommon for thousands of men to die within a single day, in just a single battle; imagine that going on for four years (in the infamous Battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed on just the first day, with total casualties mounting to 1,100,000 – larger than many wars before that time).

What’s most tragic than the eye-watering amount of death is how optimistically the war was initially pursued. Every country seemed to think it would be a clear and quick victory – no one anticipated years of an entire generation being ground with such disturbing effortlessness. There was a strong spirit of patriotism, nationalism, and pride, and men signed up or were conscripted with the assurance that they were fighting the good fight, that God was on their side, and that they’d emerge with the glory of victory. The fine window dressing of war was perhaps nothing new, but it certainly reached a whole new level of manipulation and sophistication (indeed, the modern propaganda machine as we know it was pretty much invented in this conflict, and fully utilized, thanks to the advent of radio and mass media).

As with most of my reflections on war, I could never grasp the sheer toll of death. None of us can even imagine witnessing a single life become extinguished before our eyes. Imagine tens of millions, most of them young (younger than me even).  Every one of these men had a story, a personality, hobbies, ambitions, loved ones, hopes, fears – they were all distinct individual persons whose humanity was eliminated and forgotten, rendered into cold, large numbers most of us can’t visualize. As the old saying goes, while a single death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. As much as we’re horrified by the gruesome cost, our minds – especially nearly a century later – cannot even begin to grasp the nearly unprecedented amplification of human misery.

Serbian troops, waiting for battle.

Serbia, who’s role in the war is often overlooked, lost the largest amount of lives as a proportion of it’s population- 25% of all troops, 27% of it’s entire population, and 57% of it’s men; France was so weakened by the conflict – the average height of the country fell because of how many able young men were killed or maimed – that it had neither the will nor the manpower to support it’s war effort the second time around. Three mighty empires – Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire- would all collapse and cease to exist, the first of them being weakened enough to come under the rule of what would become one of history’s most totalitarian regimes (and ironically enough, one of the major factors in our defeat of the Nazis in WWII). The consequences that befell Germany perhaps need no mention – we all know how the post-war instability and harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty facilitated the rise of the Nazis, among other fascist movements throughout Europe).  Even the peace that came after the war was bungled.

It’s disquieting that even after all the death and misery that these nations shared, war would revisit so soon and so much more horribly. The raw angst, revanchism, and misery that followed was such that it drove people to fight once more, in order to restore lost glory and right past wrongs. The bloodshed and injustice only ended up creating more bloodshed and injustice. The so-called modern age that all this occurred seemed no more enlightened and transcendent than any before it – societies were just as bloodthirsty, arrogant, violent, and barbaric than ever, only this time technology and ideology would be horrifying multipliers, especially the second time around.

I am immediately reminded of a brief but morbidly poignant poem by Carl Sandburg:

ILE the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,

Shovel them under and let me work–

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass.

Let me work.

It’s remarkable how easy it is for the deaths of millions to be forgotten with the progression of time and society. Think of the numerous battles and thousands of deaths that have ever occurred on the same area of land, much of that land long since developed, built over, or innocuously overgrown with nature, losing any sort of significance (to this day, fragments of weapons and even human remains are still stumbled upon in Europe). There’s scarcely any sign today that such a conflict ever occurred in the first place. Indeed, the last combat veteran of the war died only a few months ago, leaving only Florence Green, an Allied servicewomen with Women’s Royal Air Force.  With them will be the end of any personal recollection of this now mythical conflict. Like any war, the raw passions and emotions will be supplanted by detached academic retrospection – books, films, documentaries, and war records. We’ll study it just as we do all the other wars that have ever occurred, with the second great war not too far behind (the last of that conflict’s veterans will pass within the next decade-and-a-half).

Christopher Hitchens reviewed an excellent book  that also reflects upon the scope and scale of the brutality, callousness, and arrogance that defined the war (he also weighs in with his own astute and sobering analysis):

…Ruthless as they were in the killing of others, the generals were also shockingly profligate and callous when it came to their “own.” In some especially revolting passages, we find Gen. Sir Douglas Haig and his arrogant subordinate Gen. Sir Henry Rawlinson actually complaining when British casualties were too low, and exulting — presumably because enemy losses were deemed comparable — when they moved into the tens of thousands. What this meant in cold terms was the destruction of whole regiments, often comprising (as in the cases of Newfoundland and Ulster) entire communities back home who had volunteered as a body and stayed together in arms. They vanished, in clouds of poison gas, hails of steel splinters and great lakes of sucking mud. Or lay in lines, reminding all observers of mown-down corn, along the barbed wire and machine-gun emplacements against which they had been thrown. Like me, Hochschild has visited the mass graves and their markers, which still lie along the fields of northern France and Belgium, and been overwhelmed by what Wilfred Owen starkly and simply called “the pity of War.” (Owen was to die pointlessly as the guns were falling silent: his mother received the telegram as the church bells were ringing to celebrate the armistice — or better in retrospect to say “fragile cease-fire.”)

For anyone else who is a military and history buff like myself, or is otherwise interested in exploring this often forgotten conflict, there is an excellent website devoted to archiving and educating about the entirety of the conflict, including a timeline, important battles and figures, propaganda posters, documents, and still more. I strongly encourage everyone to give it a visit.

I can only end this somber musing with one sliver of optimism: that since this bloody introduction into the 20th century, we’ve seen few conflicts, both in terms of frequency and intensity (though the Congo Wars and the Iran-Iraq War would certainly come as close as ever in their scale, and even similarity in the case of the latter). Despite popular belief, inter-state warfare is mercifully rare, and even the more common internal kind lacks the same scale of bloodshed – though the brutality still remains. Like the 20th century, we’re entering an age of thus-far unparalleled progress , and with it a new age of warfare: rebel movements, cartels, pirates, cyber-terrorists, and clandestine conflicts between intelligence agencies. Whether our progress will help transcend these petty squabbles, or enhanced their horror, remains to be seen. It all depends on whether we remember that progress in technology is one thing, where as progress in our way of thinking is another. While WWI is largely forgotten, we can only hope the lessons won’t be.